Myanmar Journalists Charged Under Unlawful Association Act in Northeastern Shan State

The three reporters will go on trial on July 10 for covering an event organized by an ethnic militia.

A soldier from the Ta'ang National Liberation Army burns seized drugs during a ceremony marking the 51st anniversary of Ta'ang National Resistance Day in Namhsan township, Myanmar's northern Shan state, Jan. 12, 2014.

Three detained Myanmar journalists were officially charged under a colonial-era law and sent to prison in the town of Thibaw on Thursday for covering an event hosted by an armed militia in northeastern Shan state, a local police official said.

Seven men, including two reporters from the independent online news outfit Democratic Voice of Burma and one from the online journal The Irrawaddy, were detained on Monday as they left a drug-burning ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). They were accused of associating with an illegal group.

But only six—the three journalists and three drivers—were transferred to the police station in Thibaw on Thursday, where they were charged with violating Myanmar’s Unlawful Association Act of 1908, said Thibaw deputy police official Myint Kyaw.

The whereabouts of the sixth man are not known.

“Captain Thet Naing Oo from [Myanmar armed forces] Infantry Unit 503 has filed charges against these six people under Section 17(1),” he said.

Rights activists say the section is one of many legal statutes used to suppress political opposition, often in the case of ethnic minority groups. It carries a maximum prison sentence of three years and a possible fine, an officer said.

Police transferred the men to the prison in Thibaw, where authorities said their family members can visit them in accordance with the detention center’s rules and regulations.

Their trial date is set for July 10 at the Thibaw courthouse.

International rights groups, the American embassy in Myanmar, and domestic journalists have called for the immediate release of the three journalists who were covering the narcotics-burning event.

Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said the government should free Aye Naing, Pyae Phone Naing, and Thein Zaw and allow them to continue their work.

“Using the archaic Unlawful Associations Act to incarcerate journalists is an affront to democracy in Myanmar,” he said.

Zaw Htay, spokesman for President Htin Kyaw, placed blame for the arrests on the journalists themselves, saying that the three should have informed security forces of their presence in a conflict area, the Associated Press reported.

Fighting in Namhsan township

The arrests of the seven men came amid a week of clashes between the TNLA and government soldiers in northeastern Shan state, which resulted in the death of a resident of Manlang village on Wednesday.

More than 100 residents fled from the village near Namhsan township, where government soldiers arrested 13 residents for making video recordings of the clashes with their cellphones, but later released four of them on Thursday, the village administrator said. Many of them headed to the town of Lashio.

After the fighting between the national army and the TNLA on June 22 and 23, government soldiers occupied Manlang village and questioned villagers at the local monastery, said Manlang village administrator Kyaw Min.

When they left on June 27, they took with them the 13 villagers who shot videos by phone while the fighting was in progress. One died after being questioned, he said.

“A man named Apyaw who suffers from a psychological illness was taken by the government army on June 27, and he died after the interrogation,” said Kyaw Min, who was among those released by soldiers.

“Soldiers put him in a military uniform and left him on the road,” he said.

Some local residents were killed during fighting between the government army and the TNLA in the town of Kutkai as well, sources said.

The Ta’ang Women’s Group and the Ta’ang Students Group, which have documented recent incidents of abuse by the government military in the region, issued a statement on Wednesday demanding that the army end its  attacks in areas inhabited by ethnic Ta’ang people.

Lway Poe May Kle from the Ta’ang Women’s Group said that now only one-third of Manlang's illagers remain in the village.

“Eighty-eight people are staying at the Namhsan monastery, and 59 people are staying at the Sarsana 2500 monastery in Lashio,” she said.

The TNLA, which is fighting for more autonomy for the Ta'ang ethnic group, has not signed the government’s nationwide cease-fire agreement, a key initiative of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi to bring warring ethnic armed groups to the negotiating table and end decades of separtist civil wars.

Reported by Wai Mar Tun, Tin Aung Khine, and Thiri Min Zin for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.